This coming winter term (what every other university calls spring term), I’m going to be doing something I have never done in my career as a tenure-track professor. I’m going to be teaching first year composition and only first year composition. It’ll be quite a change.
When I came to EMU in 1998, my office was right next to a very senior colleague, Bob Kraft. Bob, who retired from EMU in 2004 and who passed away in December 2022, came back to the department to teach after having been in some administrative positions for quite a while. His office was right next to mine and we chatted with each other often about teaching, EMU politics, and other regular faculty chit-chat. He was a good guy; used to call me “Steve-O!”
Bob taught the same three courses every semester: three sections of a 300-level course called Professional Writing. It was a class he was involved in developing back in the early 1980s and I believe he assigned a course pack that had the complete course in it– and I mean everything: all the readings, in-class worksheets, the assignments, rubrics, you name it. Back in those days and before a university shift to “Writing Intensive” courses within majors, this was a class that was a “restricted elective” in lots of different majors, and we offered plenty of sections of it and similar classes. (In retrospect, the shift away from courses like this one to a “writing in the disciplines” approach/philosophy was perhaps a mistake both because of the way these classes have subsequently been taught in different disciplines and because it dramatically reduced the credit hour production in the English department– but all this is a different topic).
Anyway, Bob essentially did exactly the same thing three times a semester every semester, the same discussions, the same assignments, and the same kinds of papers to grade. Nothing– or almost nothing– changed. I’m pretty sure the only prep Bob had to do was change the dates on the course schedule.
I thought “Jesus, that’d be so boring! I’d go crazy with that schedule.” I mean, he obviously liked the arrangement and I have every reason to believe it was a good class and all, but the idea of teaching the same class the same way every semester for years just gave me hives. Of course, I was quite literally in the opposite place in my career: rather than trying to make the transition into retirement, I was an almost freshly-minted PhD who was more than eager to develop and teach new classes and do new things.
For my first 20 years at EMU (give or take), my work load was a mix of advanced undergraduate writing classes, a graduate course almost every semester, and various quasi-administrative duties. I occasionally have had semesters where I taught two sections of the same course, but most semesters, I taught three different courses– or two different ones plus quasi-admin stuff. I rarely taught first year composition during the regular school year (though I taught it in the summer for extra money while our son Will was still at home) because I was needed to teach the advanced undergrad and MA-level writing classes we had. And this was all a good thing: I got to teach a lot of different courses, I got a chance to do things like help direct the first year writing program or to coordinate our major and grad program, and I had the opportunity to work closely with a lot of MA students who have gone on to successful careers of their own.
But around six or seven years ago, the department (the entire university, actually) started to change and I started to change as well. Our enrollments have fallen across the board, but especially for upper-level undergraduate and MA level courses, which means instead of a grad course every semester, I tend to teach one a school year, along with fewer advanced undergrad writing classes, and now I teach first year writing every semester. One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about this arrangement is the students I work with in first year composition are different from the students I work with on their MA projects– but they’re really not that different, in the big picture of things.
And of course, as I move closer to thinking about retirement myself, Bob’s teaching arrangement seems like a better and better idea. So, scheduling circumstances being what they are, when it became clear I’d have a chance to just teach three sections of first year comp this coming winter, I took it.
We’ll see what happens. I’m looking forward to greatly reducing my prep time because this is the only course I’m teaching this semester (just three times), and also because first year writing is something I’ve taught and thought about A LOT. I’m also looking forward to experimenting with requiring students to use ChatGPT and other AI tools to at least brainstorm and copy-edit– maybe more. What I’m not looking forward to is kind of just repeating the same thing three times in a row each day I teach. Along these lines, I am not looking forward to teaching three classes all on the same days (Tuesdays and Thursdays) and all face to face. I haven’t done that in a long time (possibly never) because I’ve either taught two and been on reassigned time, or I have taught at least a third of my load online. And I’m also worried about keeping all three of these classes in synch. If one group falls behind for some reason, it’ll mess up my plans (this is perhaps inevitable).
What I’m not as worried about is all the essays I’ll have to read and grade. I’m well-aware that the biggest part of the work for anyone teaching first year writing is all the reading and commenting and grading student work, and I’ve figured out a lot over the years about how to do it. Of course, I might be kidding myself with this one….